The sequence of five arches, inlaid at their centres, alternating with columns featuring leafy capitals, lend this ivory water bucket, carved from the end of a tusk, the architectural dignity of a basilica.
A labyrinth of arches in perspective unravel just below the monumental inscription that appears along the upper edge of the bucket, above a frieze embellished with palmettes and ribbons.
The central arch, from which the inscription begins, frames the image of the Madonna with beloved Child, at the sides are the four evangelists included in the scripture of the Gospels: John and Mark at left and Matthew and Luke at right.
The dedicatory inscription reads: Vate Ambrogio, venendo Cesare, a te, santo, Gotofredo offre il vaso per aspergere la sacra acqua [Vate Ambrogio, upon Caesar’s arrival, Godfrey offers to you, saint, this receptacle for the sprinkling of the holy water.]
The sprinkling ritual consists in sprinkling holy water with a small branch called an aspergillum. It is a penitential and purifying ritual. To the letter, the inscription asks that Godfrey offer the lustral vase to Saint Ambrose, but adds “upon arrival of the Emperor”. According to the scholar, Little Godfrey, archbishop from July-August 974 until his death in 979, is not here declared archbishop, therefore it must be a piece that predates his proclamation, when he was still Subdeacon of the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. It is generally believed that the situla was commissioned for the arrival in Milan of Otto II, which however was not until 980 and therefore after the death of Godfrey, who was not buried in Sant’Ambrogio, but in the Basilica di Santa Maria Iemale, or rather in the Duomo, the museum of which now houses the situla.
The inscription certainly indicates a gift to none other than Saint Ambrose.
Judging by its style and make, the silver and gold metal handle dates back to the Romanesque era and depicts a human head being held in the jaws of two dragons, the twisted tails of which are inserted into the rings welded to the lion heads. The handle is, therefore, a masterpiece of Romanesque metalwork that is completely independent from the situla, embellished by the meticulous craftsmanship that even depicts the scales on the bodies and wings of these monstrous creatures and evokes the horror of the episode.
The piece is on display in the first room of the Museo del Duomo, near Aribert’s Book of the Gospels.
It can be visited daily from 10am to 6pm, except for Wednesday.